Cemeteries

From the Other Side: some photographs of cemeteries in the rural Eastern Cape of South Africa

Like a material testament the graveyard projects enshrined values into an uncertain future, and on the lives of those who will inhabit it.

At the heart of the colonial project is the effortful possession of imaginary space. It is effortful because contested. In most cases posession is physical, but before and beyond that it is imaginative, cultural, and juridical; it involves the appropriation of lives as well as earth.

The idea of order is always in dialectical opposition to the idea of chaos; the gate includes one and excludes the other; the civilised is protected from the savage. The Christian cemetery carries forward the idea of a home that is not only one of spiritual promise, but also of cultural extension; so a graveyard in the middle of a desert remembers a world never known in the actual experience of the farmers buried there, but as real in their imaginations as the dust and the bushes around them.

The colonial project has many forms, stages, and inflections. One of them is the central and problematic idea of home. Characteristically the coloniser does not imagine that he or she will be the one who adapts to a new world; rather the new world is seen as a canvas on which to make a home selectively cloned from the old, with all its more desirable features and none of its drawbacks. In the Eastern Cape a Victorian world remains forever England. One might say that the cemetery is a particularly poignant indicator of the way that certain settler cultures have nostalgia built into their primary structures.

And for the colonised, the graveyard inscribes the structures of imaginative subservience to an aesthetic and religious order that endures “beyond the grave”.